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The Braille Monitor – November, 2000 Edition


Engineering New Products for the Blind

by David Pillischer


From the Editor: David Pillischer is the president of Sighted Electronics, Inc. He sells and supports a number of adaptive technology products. He may be sighted, but he cares passionately about good technology for blind people. On Wednesday afternoon, July 5, 2000, he addressed the Convention of the National Federation of the Blind. In his remarks he demonstrated his close understanding of the blindness technology field, and he provided solid advice for anyone buying these products. This is what he said:      

David Pillischer
David Pillischer

The word for today and tomorrow is "inclusion." In the past few years I have been witness to many new patents for products for blind people. I have knowledge of four new types of Braille-display cells, ranging from solenoid and cam-driven mechanical devices, to electronic jell cells, to memory metals. To date no new devices are nearly ready to replace the Piezo Electric device currently used. The prices of CCTV products have decreased while quality and computer accessibility have improved. Braille embossers are also faster and able to cut paper, fold paper, and perform tasks that were not possible a short time ago. Dr. Kurzweil talks of a day that computers will be so tiny that we will possibly wear them in our clothes, and these tiny computers will have direct access to our brains. Most of the research I know about has been performed with money from government grants at universities or by small companies competing in the field of adaptive technology.

Lately many of you have noticed that there is increased interest in companies which supply products to people with disabilities, particularly blindness products. We have seen the purchase of Arkenstone, Henter-Joyce, and Blazie Engineering just this year. Last year Kurzweil Education was purchased by Lernout and Hauspie. I feel that the sudden interest in companies supplying blindness products is related to new laws concerning the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I hear very often that with all of these big wealthy companies going into adaptive aids for the blind there will be more research and development and many revolutionary new products for blind people. This is not always the case. Companies tend to leave a product alone if it is profitable, even if the technology is not up to the most modern standard. Research and development is a very large expense. Sometimes the product developed does not work as hoped, or the application is not well received by the community. In those situations the research and development monies are lost. No company would take this risk unless it was necessary.

What really spurs on product development is competition. If companies must develop cutting edge technology to stay ahead of the competitor and achieve sales, then these companies will have to continue to develop technology in order to survive. If companies do not have to develop technologies continuously, they will not. Number two will always try to be number one, and number three will try to be number two and eventually number one.

Blind people must have the means to be mainstreamed in educational and work environments in order to be included. Dr. Jernigan often said technology is one of the keys to independence for blind people. Blind people will gain independence through education and inclusion in the work force. When software does not have to be specifically adapted to work with special applications, only then will barriers to the blind come down. When you in the audience were in school, how many of you had to work on a different program or do something else while the rest of the class played with or learned with a particular arithmetic or language program? "Class, today we are going to do math; blind kid, you do something else."

The old school of product development was to make proprietary hardware or software. This meant that the end user was able to use only software and accessories that could be compatible with a particular manufacturer's complete system. This way the end user had to keep coming back to a particular manufacturer whenever there was a new computer task to perform. In this way the manufacturer had what is known as slave clientele: a customer who had to purchase again and again, insuring continued income for that manufacturer.

If an application in an office was being used by all the sighted employees, the blind employee might not be able to use that application if the blind person's hardware or software package was not compatible.

The incompatibility of these special hardware- and software-combination packages convinced blind employees that their application software had to be different from those of sighted employees. This created a need for special software, special operating applications, and special training for the blind employee--again no inclusion. The sighted employee went to one training center, and the blind employee had special training sessions with software that might or might not work with the application that the sighted employee was using, so again we had special applications, supposedly enabling the blind to work-- special applications that really kept the blind employee apart.

Many blind people bought into the premise that they must have special application software in order to be able to perform. This is not necessarily true. Blind people must have adaptive software that works with all applications. Many companies make adaptive software that now works with most mainstream application programs. For instance, JAWS, Window Bridge 2000, and Window-Eyes work with Microsoft Word, a word-processing software; Internet Explorer, used for accessing the Internet; and Omni Page Professional, an Optical character recognition software. These off-the-shelf software packages are ones used most by the sighted community. For this reason I call these software applications mainstream applications.

It is not always as easy for a blind computer user who is not computer- literate to use mainstream application software, but, once it is learned, the blind person is using something less expensive and just as accurate as specialty software packages, if not more accurate. The blind user becomes less reliant on special application software and, as a user, is less special in the workplace. This means that the blind user is included. The blind student is working

with the other students, and blind people in the workplace are now in step with their sighted colleagues. The blind user can say to co-workers, "Hey, I am having a problem; my word processor is not word-processing, or network application is not networking. Can you help me out?" Because the blind user is not using a different software from the sighted co worker, the co-worker can be of possible assistance. Or, if the sighted employee is having a problem, the blind employee might be able to enlighten him or her.

When the sighted user wants to print e-mail or a document in any Windows application, that person simply guides the mouse to the print portion in the file menu, clicks the left button of his or her mouse, selects the name of the laser or inkjet printer, and makes the document. With a two-dimensional Braille display and Jaws or Window Bridge 2000, a blind user can have a vertical and horizontal representation of a computer screen. The blind user can then use the line-routing, mouse-pointer, and cursor-routing capabilities of the two- dimensional Braille display. Simply put, point and click using a Braille display. The technology is available; it is not new; it has been available for some time.

The problem with this two-dimensional technology in the past was that the two-dimensional display did not work with all screen readers. This was partially due to competition between companies that make screen-reading software. As a result the hardware manufacturer Papenmeier was forced into that proprietary hardware and software issue I previously discussed. Business decisions were made by the hardware manufacturer, and alliances with almost all other companies in the industry making screen-reading applications followed.

For quite a while the confidential information that enabled the vertical display was not revealed to the manufacturers of screen-reading software. Eventually fences were mended. Papenmeier, the manufacturer of the two- dimensional Braille display, finally realized the benefits of having all screen- access software working with its product. The company enlarged its market share by allowing its product to be more accessible to other screen readers. Instead of increasing profits by having a slave clientele, the manufacturer had actually been limiting profits by limiting compatibility of the Braille display. In spite of a truly revolutionary device that was accurate and beneficial to the blind, the sales were limited because of the limited accessibility.

Index Braille, a company in Sweden, has gone to expense to give the blind user the option of selecting the name of the Index Braille embosser being used from the Windows printer-selection list of any Windows application. A blind user can send a document to a Braille embosser in Grade II Braille from a Windows application without ever having to save the document or leave the application that's running. Just like the sighted user, the blind user can point, click, and emboss or, even easier, use the command "control 'P'" to emboss and get back to the application program. This was not possible six months ago. The technology was not available for people who use Braille.

Many blind users ask me why Index does not make its drivers for all Braille embossers. The answer is simple: does Hewlett Packard make the printer drivers for Epson or Lexmark? It is proper for a company to support its own devices, not its competitors'.

Index Braille has made many products for blind people with the mainstream market in mind. The Everest Braille Embosser was a product that had a poor start. The first models had a bad track record for reliability, and there were paper-feed problems. These problems were further exaggerated by other manufacturers of Braille embossers, the competition. The reason for the initial problems with the Everest was researched and all the problems solved. The developer was focused on the mainstream market. He wanted people to be able to buy paper for their Braille embosser from Staples or Office Max or any paper supplier at a fraction of the cost of Braille paper, making Braille easier to produce. The tenacity and efforts of Bjorn Lofstedt, the son of a blind teacher, have made it possible for blind people today to use any office supply for their Braille paper.

People should not attack a particular product when there are early problems. If the idea is good, wait; watch; and, when you are satisfied with the reliability, buy it or do not buy it. Do not slander a product's reputation because of rumor. Ask the people at the Federation's International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind for an unbiased opinion. Most negative rumors are fueled by competitive companies to damage sales for an adversary.

I often say I do not want an umbilical cord between my company and an end user of our blindness products just because a product was purchased from us. Once the sale is made, paper, software, peripheral products, should be available from many sources. I feel that the rule for the future of technology for the blind is very simple: it must be mainstream in order for the blind to survive in the job market.

If hiring a blind person is painless to corporate America and special allowances do not have to be made, more jobs will become available. In short, adaptive products will have to address the mainstream markets. Adaptive products will have to be able to work with more off-the-shelf software and hardware in order to enable inclusion in everyday activities. In short, the leading producers of blindness products have to address more of these mainstream products and make their adaptive products usable with all applications.

For the past seventeen years Sighted Electronics has been involved with products for people who are blind. We were promoting Braille literacy before it was popular to do so. I travel extensively to visit our affiliates in Germany, Sweden, and England. I saw that Europeans never accepted speech processors as a replacement for Braille. As a matter of fact the European people I work with commented about the concept of a synthesizer and tape recorder replacing Braille as ridiculous and counterproductive. Over the years I also noticed that more blind people in Europe were employed. Their computer skills seemed better, and the productivity of these Braille users was comparable to that of their sighted co-workers.

In a corporate environment the bottom line is, how much money does this employee make for the company, and is the employee more efficient when using a particular device. Studies have shown that Braille users are valuable: 93 percent of blind people who are employed use Braille. That is no accident. There is a direct correlation between Braille and success. The bottom line in business dictates hiring, firing, and future employment opportunities for blind people. Today it is a proven fact that Braille literacy is paramount.

There is nothing comparable for providing written information to blind people. Why do so many people and agencies resist Braille? The excuse I often hear is that mainstream teachers do not read Braille. I know Grade II Braille can be scanned on a Hewlett Packard scanner, then converted to readable text for sighted people. The technology is readily available. It is called Optical Braille Recognition or O.B.R. It was developed for parents and teachers who do not read Braille. It was also developed for libraries to copy old Braille books and save these old books in formatted Braille on disk. Another excuse often heard is that Braille is too expensive. My question is, how expensive is not providing Braille to blind children and adults?

We cannot ignore the benefits of accessible Braille for the Internet and other computer applications. Not since the invention of the telephone has a new technology had as dramatic an impact on business as the Internet. Virtually every aspect of every business is affected by the Internet, from marketing, to inventory control, to finance. The future of technology for the blind will be Braille in an accessible format for blind students and adults with the Internet. I know that the NFB is involved in a disagreement with America Online. America Online as the largest Internet provider cannot ignore Blind people. Blind people must have full Internet access. In this way blind people can compete in a sight- oriented world, on a level playing field.

Unfortunately, some of the people who recommend and buy adaptive devices for the blind do not have a clue about the new technology. Some of them might make purchases they consider safe: "I bought this last year, so I will buy another one this year." If these purchasers actually had to use the technology themselves, they might find it cumbersome or inaccurate with newer application software or newer operating systems. The technology available today is not the same technology that was available last year or even last month. Purchasing agencies and consultants cannot assume that all adaptive hardware manufacturers keep up with industry changes.

In some cases there are financial agreements, personal friendships, and many ulterior arrangements affecting the actual purchase of a product. People should purchase your adaptive equipment the way that someone would purchase a household device like a toaster or stereo for personal use. One must investigate the performance and capability of a device. What should scare you as end users is that these people, recommending outdated technology, play a key role in your future, your education, your job, your income, and the reputation of the blind working force.

Sighted Electronics and our cooperative companies have always tried to provide products that enable blind people. We have achieved success by our ability to provide for blind computer users the benefits of Braille. Blind computer users need Internet access. Blind computer users need the ability to be included in all business and scholastic activities. Blind people should not be segregated by the lack of Braille technology or the lack of a marketing company's ability to keep up with new technologies.

Blind people should investigate the new technology that becomes available. If it is something that might work for you, ask for a demonstration; find out about the warranty; ask about the company that provides the technology; find out about the company's ability to perform; and, just like buying a toaster or a stereo, buy what works best for you and make sure it will do what you intended it to do.

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